Extending Himself

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Joe Gibbs not only wants to stay as Redskins coach next season, he wants a contract extension from owner Daniel Snyder. But he can't come right out and say it because they haven't had time to sit down and actually negotiate it.

No sane coach, not even one who's already in the Hall of Fame, goes public -- saying, in effect, "Boss, how about another year, another $5 million or more" -- until the deal is actually done. You don't step on a billionaire's prerogatives, even if you've been his hero since he was a boy.

So, yesterday a cautious, noncommittal Gibbs paid Snyder a dozen compliments and then said that, as far as his contract status was concerned, they would try to "get things wrapped up as quick as we can. . . . We will be doing that starting this evening and going forward. . . . When we have something hashed out, we'll let you know."

Before the week is out, Gibbs and Snyder will probably share a big hug and announce that Gibbs will be in town longer than fans ever hoped. That, at least, is the most likely culmination for the machinations at Redskins Park at the moment.

But we can't be absolutely positive. Put the odds at 95 percent. My days as a Gibbsologist began when he arrived in town in '81. For thanklessness, it's a job akin to being a Kremlinologist in the Cold War days. You have to parse a bushel of cliches for an ounce of insight. However, this current puzzle is probably pretty simple.

Everybody associated with the Redskins is delighted and proud at the way the season was salvaged in the last month. For next season, everybody wants to keep everything as close as possible to the way it is right now. Bring back as many players as is financially feasible, especially free agent quarterback Todd Collins. Perhaps add a key free agent from another team. But, having finally discovered team chemistry, the Redskins don't want to tear it apart.

And, of course, bring back Gibbs, who held the franchise together when it might have spun away like a whirlygig after Sean Taylor's shooting death. It is the most important piece of the puzzle.

In recent weeks, it has become clear that Gibbs may not win any prizes for rulebook recitation. And, perhaps, he needs an assistant such as Al Saunders to bring his offensive system into the 21st century. But there is still no better leader of men in the NFL. When things go badly wrong, you want him in charge, setting the tone, bestowing his calm, radiating common sense and humility. Real leaders are rare. He is one. You don't analyze why he has the right stuff. You just say, "Joe, what do you want in that new contract?" And that's probably what Snyder will do.

But contracts in pro sports are almost always touchy affairs. If egos, misunderstandings and money are going to cause mischief, then such negotiations are the moment to bring out the worst in anyone. Gibbs is so aware that coach contracts are an NFL landmine that he has, for many years, been obsessed with defusing the issue before it even arose.

Two years ago, in frustration, Gibbs asked reporters how he should answer constant questions about whether he would remain for the full five years of his contract, through the '08 season. Gibbs realized that most of the media was as sick of asking him the question as he was of answering it in ways that might be misinterpreted and give life to rumors.

"I intend to fulfill my contract," were the magic words. Gibbs said thanks. And meant it. First, it's true. Who doesn't intend to fulfill a legal contract, especially for $5 million a year? Also, you still have complete freedom. You can say, "I intended to fulfill my contract but now I changed my mind." Then you tell the world, "I retire." Or "I want a contract extension."

So, everybody lived happily ever after -- until yesterday.

At his season wrap-up news conference, Gibbs declined to repeat the code words for, "There's no Gibbs-contract story here today, folks. Go home and have dinner with your families."

Oh, he was asked, practically begged, to say them. What a horrifying sight. Pleeeease, Joe, the sun is setting and our kids haven't seen us in a month. Say the six words we taught you and release us to the temporary custody of our loved ones.

Instead, Gibbs said, "That's been my answer the whole way." But not anymore.

With that, the feeding frenzy began. As soon as Gibbs acknowledged that he and Snyder needed to talk about his status, that meant only one thing: Gibbs wanted to discuss an extension. After all, if he wanted to retire, nothing could stop him. If he just wanted to coach one more season, then he already had that contract in his pocket.

Perhaps it is a measure of Gibbs's almost mythical stature in Washington that, within minutes of his news conference, players were calling reporters asking: "What was that all about? What did he mean?" Where were those six words that calm all fears?

Redskins Nation should relax. The main point of Gibbs's postseason summation was his delight -- cautiously expressed, of course -- that the Washington franchise is headed in the right direction again.

"After last season, going 5-11, we tried to analyze everything. We felt like we let some stuff get away from us. We made some mistakes. It was mostly my fault. I made some personnel decisions that really hurt us. That's well documented," said Gibbs, no doubt recalling free agents Brandon Lloyd and Adam Archuleta. "We needed to figure out how it happened and how to keep it from happening again. . . . We crafted a good plan, signing London [Fletcher], getting Fred Smoot back."

Part of that plan involved Snyder spending far more than most owners to make sure the team had depth in case of injuries, including offensive linemen Todd Wade and Jason Fabini as well as both Mark Brunell and Collins at quarterback.

Now, the future looks entirely different to Gibbs. And it's a future in which he sees himself at the center.

"This year is totally different. I'm always cautious, but if you look at the players we lost to injury and you put that group back healthy [next season], it's a much different feeling" about the future, Gibbs said. "Two of the last three years we've made the playoffs. . . . I'm hoping last year was an aberration and the two years we made the playoffs are what we're getting back to: consistently winning football games. But we want to win more of them than we did this year."

A month ago, Gibbs's coaching career was at its lowest point after his double-timeout gaffe contributed to a 17-16 loss to Buffalo that dropped the Redskins to 5-7. The next day, the team arrived at Taylor's funeral with almost invisibly small hopes of making the playoffs and Gibbs's record in his second term as Redskins coach was a dismal 26-34.

No wonder Gibbs and Snyder delayed any conversation about his place in the Redskins' future. Would he, or should he, return if the decimated team finished 5-11 again? Instead, four games that might have been lost under many coaches were somehow won under Gibbs. His aura, his national reputation, was burnished bright once more.

Now, he wants a contract extension so he can preside over the final stage of leading the Redskins back to being as a perennial NFL power. That's why he came back to town. Now, he can taste it. The only thing he can't do is come out and say it. Everybody has to play by the negotiating rules, even Gibbs.

So, it's Snyder's turn. He's opened his checkbook to everybody else on earth. He won't slam it shut on Joe Gibbs.

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